Roku Netflix Player Page 2
The Netflix Player’s performance depends on the speed of your broadband connection. When I first received the player, I had a 1.5-megabit-per-second connection. Roku recommends a speed of at least 1.5 Mbps, which gets you about a VHS-quality image. At that speed, my impression was “forgetaboutit.” Fortunately, at the time, I was about to upgrade my Internet service anyway. Since I’m getting more involved with lossless audio and high-definition media downloads, I upgraded my broadband connection to 6 Mbps.
The quality of the Netflix Player’s video streams was appreciably better after I upgraded my connection. (Admittedly, this is not an option for everyone.) After the upgrade, the quality of the streams was more in line with a 480p DVD. The content was finally watchable after my projector upconverted it to 1080p.
I queued and watched parts of a number of movies on the Roku. I also watched The Contract, with Morgan Freeman and John Cusack, in its entirety. (I can see why there wasn’t much buzz about this movie in spite of its star power.) The image looked noticeably softer and provided less impressive color fidelity than a good DVD typically does. But I wanted to compare a streamed movie with the same movie on DVD. It took me a little while to search through the Netflix movies that are available for streaming to find something that I also owned in my DVD library. I came upon the director’s cut of THX 1138 and decided to use that as my reference.
To keep things equal, I set the video resolution on my Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player to 480p, which allowed my JVC DLA-HD1 projector to do the upconversion. I verified that the projector was receiving 480p from the Netflix Player as well. I then started both sources at the beginning of the film. I played a few scenes on the Roku and watched the same scenes on the DVD. This was actually a good movie choice, since the director’s cut was remastered fairly recently. It looks extremely good for a 1971 film. After I watched the streaming video and the DVD for about a half-hour, it became apparent that the video quality was close to identical. Of course, the DVD’s 5.1-channel soundtrack is a marked improvement over the compressed two-channel Windows Media Audio (WMA) that the Netflix Player uses.
I rarely watch anything upconverted from 480i or 480p anymore. I’m more into Blu-ray these days. So for me, it felt like I was moving backward in time when I watched content streaming from the Netflix Player. But if you still watch those Netflix DVDs you get in the mail, you’ll probably find the download streams from the Netflix Player to be good—but only at the faster connection speed.
You’ve probably noticed that I keep harping on the importance of the broadband connection speed. Consider this: If you download video content from an existing rental service, like Apple or Sony, you can store it on a hard drive (Apple TV or a PlayStation3 console) and watch it on a later date. It might take all day to download at 1.5 Mbps or less, especially if it’s a movie in high definition with a 5.1-channel soundtrack. But you can at least watch the stored content in full resolution. But what if you want to stream that content for instant viewing? In this case, you can see why the connection speed is so important.
It doesn’t take a genius or a crystal ball to see that streaming and downloadable media is the next generation of home entertainment. So Roku’s Netflix Player makes a lot of sense. However, the promise of the Netflix Player is much greater than its current capabilities. This isn’t Roku’s fault, though. All the player can do is stream the material Netflix provides, which is currently limited. For now, the Netflix Player is best used as a secondary source for your Netflix account. Consider it as a way of doubling up your movie viewing. You can get the newest films on DVD or Blu-ray in the mail and use the Netflix Player to stream older material that also interests you.
Speaking of queuing, it’s a total nuisance that you can’t browse through the Netflix library and queue up films directly with the Netflix Player. This two-step process is neither efficient nor spontaneous. Of course, I’m spoiled by my Apple TV. It lets me browse through the library, read movie descriptions, and make my selection right on the spot. Moreover, with my fast broadband connection, I can start viewing content (even HD) within a minute or two. On the other hand, those five- to six-dollar fees can really add up.
A major advantage of the Netflix Player is that you can stream movies as part of your monthly Netflix membership fee. Netflix does not have individual download charges like pay-per-view and rental services do. However, as I described earlier, Netflix does not give subscribers first access to the newest movies (via streaming) based on the major studios’ current licensing restrictions.
I also suggest that you upgrade your broadband service for the fastest possible connection that your provider offers. This is a major flaw in the overall execution of Roku’s Netflix system. While I would expect that you’d need greater bandwidth to stream HD content, it seems like DVD-quality streams should be available with basic broadband speeds. This would accommodate more of the potential market for this product. I mean, who rents VHS anymore? Why would you want to stream content that’s no better than that?
For only $100, the Roku Netflix Player is a modest investment that offers a unique method for viewing additional movies from your Netflix account. If you are a Netflix junkie and haven’t fallen victim to the HD drug yet, you’ll probably find the Netflix Player a welcome addition to your entertainment system. However, it does have its limitations, and you shouldn’t compare it with existing services that offer the most current content. At this time, they really are two different animals.
* If you’d like to read more about what is available in the world of downloadable and streaming media, please check out my blog, The A/V Files, at our sister publication Ultimate AV at blog.UltimateAVmag.com/kimwilson.